Leaping into Faith?

[Back to Reason, Science and Faith]

1. Introduction

The idea of a "leap of faith" is unfairly defined by Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leap_of_faith) as:

In philosophy, a leap of faith is the act of believing in or accepting something not on the basis of reason. The phrase is commonly associated with Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

What an almighty put-down - and entirely simplistic!   The entry continues by saying this:

As an idiom, leap of faith can refer to the act of believing something that is unprovable. The term can also refer to a risky thing a person does in hopes of a positive outcome.

I have a bit more sympathy for this second, idiomatic usage.   The point for me is that it all depends on what we regard "having faith in something" means for us.

To me, the definition given by Dictionary.com conveys a better sense of what "leap of faith" means:

A belief or trust in something intangible or incapable of being proved. For example, "It required a leap of faith to pursue this unusual step of transplanting an animals' heart into a human patient."

The Wikipedia article goes on to say that Kierkegaard never said "leap of faith" as such.  It seems to be one of those ideas that has emerged through a process of discussion and literary exploration, while the broad concept nevertheless remains associated with Kierkegaard.

An excellent quote often associated with a leap of faith is this one attributed to J.R.Rim:

“Wings are like dreams. Before each flight, a bird takes a small jump, a leap of faith, believing that its wings will work. That jump can only be made with rock solid feet.”

2. Faith, Trust and Belief

In line with my comments on Paul H's article on Faith, the notions of Trust and Faith all have to do with the degrees and nature of personal Belief - which in itself really has to do with the nature of Knowledge, epistemology, and how we personally come to know things and have any confidence in them..   Trust is quite a weak, informal form of personal belief, with Faith being the most profound strongest sort of belief requiring considerable commitment.   Al belief involves some notion of evidence, either for or against which in turn involves reason.

Trust is informal confidence and belief that things will behave as expected, will act similarly to past experiences and are unlikely to surprise us with unexpected poor performance.  Trust is typically contingent on circumstances and does not represent a hard and fast guarantee - it is what is likely to happen, what is expected to happen.  Trust is more about what is likely and may be quite malleable, particularly when the world changes, our trust has to change with it.

To use Mark's "bus driver" example:  we may have trust that the bus driver will deliver us to our desired destination in good order and in reasonable time.   That doesn't mean that this will happen - the driver could have a heart attack, the bus may be involved in an accident, there may be unexpected delays in traffic and so on - any number of ways that what we had trusted in when we took the bus doesn't happen in the way we had expected.   When we trust something, it doesn't mean that it is necessarily the case - instead, trust is always contingent upon how circumstances pan out this time around.

Beliefs are personal claims about the world, people and ideas.  We think that claims could either be true or false - but in fact our claims are generally partial statements and incomplete.  This means claims may contain true and false elements and this leads to degrees of truth for these claims.

Faith is a completely different kettle of fish.  Although faith is a form of belief, the nature of evidence is very different.    Faith in anything at all is about making an initial commitment without incontrovertible evidence that the something you have faith in is actually true.   Faith requires this leap into faith, a step into what is at the time of commitment, the unknown.   If what you have faith in is actually true, then strong evidence will only become apparent later.   Just because you once lept into faith about something, this still means you could leap out of it later - evidence still plays a role but is often more about maintaining a belief, rather than initially establishing it.

People sometimes say that faith is all about believing without reason - well, that would lead to a very weak form of faith indeed and would I think be akin to a superstitious form of trust - easily gained and equally easily lost.  As someone with a background in Mathematical Logic and so on, I equate the notion of faith as something that is initially held as being axiomatically true - withno logical precursor.   Some people will accept this statement as being foundationally true - whereas others with a different way of thinking may adopt other statements as being foundationally true - this is the nature of personal belief and faith.   Logically, such axioms are taken as being unconditionally (tautologically) true by that person.  Later evidence, if fairly understood without bias or prejudice, may either confirm, deny or have nothing relevant to say about the actual truth (or otherwise) of those faith beliefs.

The notion of a leap of faith (or as I prefer, a leap into faith c.f. leap into the unknown) can be illustrated by reusing Mark's bus driver analogy - if instead of our usual bus, another bus came along to our standard bus stop, driven by a bus driver we didn't recognise, with a bus number we hadn't seen before, we will then have to wonder if we should trust taking this bus to complete our journey.  We then ask the driver and they confirm we could safely use this bus.  If we get on, we are nonetheless taking a risk, making an assumption in accepting what we have been told by someone we don't recognise - this is a leap into trusting what we have been told.


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  • Why don't you suggest some edits to the Wikipedia article and see what happens! :)

  • The problem with the bus analogy is that often faith doesn't even have the bus or the unknown driver as evidence.  There is nothing whatsoever to tangibly justify the faith in a satisfactory journey.


    • Mark, I have offered catching a bus as an example of ordinary, everyday faith being exercised.  Clearly, many other examples could be chosen.

      But if you want to say that faith in the real world - in the lives of people - often has no evidence, please can you give us a few examples to support the claim?



    • Mark, I'm not clear what you mean by 'there is absolutely no evidence', but it seems that the way you are using the phrase is not what I would mean, and the phrase itself could be misleading in this context.

      When I say that all faith is based on evidence, I don't mean that it is all based on evidence that you know, or evidence that you would regard as valid: I mean evidence that the person concerned knows and regards as valid.  If I have a friend who regularly takes homeopathic remedies, and tells me that they often work, then I have evidence that homeopathy works.  When I see homeopathic remedies sold - seemingly in large numbers - in shops, from the medicine shelves, then I have evidence that homeopathy works.  When I hear of medical doctors prescribing homeopathic remedies alongside the more usual treatments, then I have evidence that homeopathy works (Wikipedia says that In 1999, about 1,000 UK doctors practiced homeopathy).  This may not count as evidence for you, but it does count as evidence for the people who use the stuff.

      I think it is also relevant that you get 10 minutes for an GP appointment in the UK, but an appointment with a homeopathy practitioner will typically last for an hour.  This difference is also evidence: you would expect that the person who spends a  significant amount of time seeking to understand me and my condition will have a better chance of helping than someone who rushes me out of the door almost before I have had time to open my mouth.

      By the way, the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the USA has published a study on 'Why Patients Choose Homeopathy', looking at 100 homeopathic patients in the San Francisco Bay Area.  One was a medical doctor and three were registered nurses.  The people who choose to use homeopathy are, in general, more highly educated than the general population.

      And people don't need to have faith in the effectiveness of homeopathy, as you describe it: I suspect that many people who use it only have faith that homeopathy might work - might make some small difference - but also that it will certainly not cause any harm.  The evidence threshold for such a belief is pretty low.  (And there is the story about Neils Bohr being challenged about a horseshoe on his wall and replying that he understood that it gives you luck whether or not you believe in it.  The story may be apocryphal, but it makes a valid point.)

      I could make similar observations in support of religious belief, I think I want to do that elsewhere.  In any case, have I said enough to challenge your claim that there are forms of faith for which there is absolutely no evidence?


      Homeopathy or homoeopathy is a pseudoscientific system of alternative medicine. It was conceived in 1796 by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. It…
    • Something else that springs to mind - we need to differentiate evidence from explanation.  There are lots of credible reasons and explanations concerning why people believe things, but I would suggest that many of those things have nothing to do with the belief itself. i.e. they explain why someone might believe things (your clutching at straws with minimal risk of harm to do with homeopathy is an example) but it doesn't provide any evidence towards the belief (freestanding) in the efficacy of the homeopathy remedies.


    • "we need to differentiate evidence from explanation" - very good point!  I think we need to take this thought away from the comments and address it as a topic in its own article.


    • 'The person concerned knows and regards as valid'.  This is a major divergence between what I regard as evidence, namely things that can be demonstrated shared and verified by e.g. the scientific method and opinion, which may be real to the person that holds it but can be discredited by the mechanisms I mention.  Homeopathy fails the latter absolutely.  So people may believe they know things, but the things they 'know' can only really be evidence, at least in my understanding, if they pass the test of verification.  Surely the pursuit of knowledge has at its root the desire for truth and dependability?

      And the answer to your final question, no not really, although I can accept it depends on how you define faith - whether it's faith in internalised things we think we know or whether its faith in things that can be demonstrated, within the right boundaries, as true in the generality.

      Religious faith isn't really any different other than the word has overloaded baggage - some talk about 'the Faith', or 'he/she has a strong faith', or 'he prays for you having faith you will be cured' or 'she has faith that when she dies she'll go to heaven' or 'the priest has faith that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ' or 'they have faith that their participation in Jihad will bring them rewards after death'.  What people have faith in is almost impossible to pin down without doctrine, and of course we all know doctrines cannot be based on any level of verifiable truth as there are so many different ones!

      So it all probably comes down to what we think evidence actually is.  Related to this is of course ECREE - 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' coined by Carl Sagan.  I think that it's quite reasonable to demand high levels of evidence for claims that ask us to set aside the scientific framework and understanding of how things work in order to accomodate it.


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